A Tree in the Ear

by Mike Ciul

Written in 1995, updated 2012

That summer, I worked in the shop of a harpsichord maker named Augustus Dorn. He was a friend of the family, and he'd taken me on as an apprentice because of my musical leanings. No one in my family besides myself knew the first thing about music; otherwise, they might have thought twice about inflicting this on me.

Augustus built everything from tiny origami figures to small sailboats. He treated everything he worked on with equal amounts of loving care and impatient, perfectionist violence. Everything that survived his workshop worked with utmost smoothness, regardless of the number of times it had been thrown across the room or stomped on in a rage.

He liked to boast of his achievements beyond the workshop. "I'm a brown-belt in Judo, from one of the toughest organizations in the world. You should study some, y'know. Comes in handy." When things were really slow, he'd try to teach me moves I could use in self-defense. He'd also talk about motorcycle maintenance. He had a bright red racing bike. "It's not one of those piece-of-shit Harleys," he often reminded me. "Hardly Davidson is more like it. No, my friend, the only decent bikes are Japanese."

Augustus was taller than he really looked, because he was always hunched over something-- even when he wasn't working on an instrument, he would find something to hunch over. His large frame was covered with both fat and muscle, so that you couldn't really tell how much there was of either.

When I arrived at the workshop Augustus gave me a tour. It was a simple place. There were two small back rooms, but all the main activity happened in a large shop facing the street with large windows and a glass door. At one end was the main workbench, piled with tools and instrument parts and smeared with grease, varnish, paint, and glue. Around the bench were five or six instruments in various stages of construction and repair. "Have a look at this!" Augustus pointed out a huge, ornate Flemish double manual harpsichord, flexing its Renaissance muscles atop a gold-leafed stand. The whole thing, top to bottom, was flawlessly done up with a faux marble finish, in the poorest taste imaginable. The finish gave the impression that the instrument weighed several tons. Every inch of the soundboard was decorated with twisting vines and flowers. Augustus showed me a little joke he had incorporated into this design. "See this here? That little leafy arrow pointing at the cherry? The cherry's being popped!"

In contrast to the immense Flemish harpsichord, a tiny little monochord sat cowering on a nearby shelf-- a one-stringed clavichord, one of the simplest keyboard instruments. Augustus liked to corner customers and point it out to them. "Each key of this little kneebiter is on one end of a lever, the other supporting this metal pin here. The string is damped on one end, and each pin strikes the string at a different place, so that the undamped end of the string vibrates from the pin down to the bridge. Every key plays the same string! And look what you can do-- if you press the key down and wiggle it you can get a wild vibrato going! And you see there are only two black keys? That's just F sharp and B flat. That's all it's got. There's no room for any more." By this time his victims would be completely baffled. His excitement deflated, Augustus would turn his disappointment on them. "Ah well," he would sigh, "some people don't even understand the simple beauty of the monochord. I won't try to tell you about split sharps."

One afternoon in late August, there was a call in the shop. This guy had gotten stuck building a muselar from a kit, and he needed a professional to finish it. A muselar is a small Flemish virginal. It's hard to make-- the jacks pluck the strings in the middle and the mechanism is complicated. Someone--don't ask me who--had managed to convince him that Augustus was The Best. Naturally Augustus didn't argue and so he agreed to look at it. The caller, a thin, awkward man, walked into the shop later that week carrying a ragged portfolio.

"Look, it's Liberace with a hangover!" Augustus crooned as the man pushed open the door.

"Hello, Mr. Dorn? Leigh DiNardo. I called about a virginal kit I was working on."

Augustus took his hand just slightly more firmly than was necessary. "How d'ya do, Mr. DiNerdo. Call me Augustus, please."

"Certainly. Leigh will do fine."

I said Mr. DiNardo was awkward, because that's what I thought for the first minute or so. After that, however, I noticed something. Although his arms were a little too long, his elbows bent in a funny way, and his head leaned uncomfortably away from its natural point of balance, his movements were somehow calculated. It was as if he were a dancer capable of great grace portraying an uncoordinated person.

"I brought some pictures of the instrument," Leigh said, setting his portfolio delicately down on a less-cluttered corner of the filthy workbench. He brought out some large black and white photoraphs of a reasonably well-made case, undecorated but otherwise just ready for stringing. "I've been having a terrible time. The strings just keep breaking every time I try to put them in."

Augustus have me a private smirk and pretended to look in a scholarly way at the photographs. "Hmm.. yes, a common problem. This is going to need quite a bit of work. I can't give you a quote yet, but if you leave this with me I'll call you in a couple days. But tell me-- how come you haven't decorated the instrument yet? Certainly, in our main office we would string an instrument temporarily before decorating, but then we remove all the strings to make adjustments. I wouldn't recommend stringing twice to an amateur."

"Oh, I was just planing to have a bare wood finish. It looks so much more natural and authentic that way."

Agusutus glowered and responded in a condescending tone, "Well, the Flemish instruments, especially the muselar, were always decorated with papers. If you want authentic, you'll have to do it that way. And you have to paint the soundboard-- it's not just aesthetic, it helps to treat the wood and improve the sound. But I would be happy to do all that for you. It's all part of the service." He grinned toothily.

"How very kind you are. Let's discuss it later." Leigh took his portfolio, turned, and left.

As soon as Leigh was out the door, Augustus shrieked, "What a piece of trash! That candy-ass bonehead wouldn't be able to tell a harpsichord from a flying can of donkey shit! I've seen better work come out of a Hardly Davidson factory! Wait 'til I get my hands on that thing -- I'll show that idiot what a proper instrument should be. Hey, what's this?"

Stuck to the back of one of the photographs was a well-handled sheet of expensive paper, torn in half. On it were scribbled a few lines of poetry. Augustus read them in a voice that made me cringe.

"'There rose a tree. O pure transcendency! O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!' That's a good one... heh, there's more-- 'And all was silent. Yet even in the silence, new beginning, beckoning, change went on. Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear released wood from lair and nesting-place...' Oh god this guy is really gone. Let's see if I can finish this one... 'From lair and nesting place, and they went wee wee wee wee all the way home!' Ha! There! It's art!" Augustus wrote his addition to the poem in pencil and pinned it up on the wall amid a clutter of other papers.

Augustus put aside the photographs and returned to the workbench where he was shaping a set of keys for a new clavichord, chuckling to himself, "O tall tree in the ear!" I went back to my work and turned on the radio.

Augustus would allow nothing on the radio except the single local classical station, and even that suffered a good deal of his verbal abuse. He would berate the announcers for their lack of taste when they played things he didn't like, and denounce them for their lack of reverence when they played things he did like. Once when I put on another PBS station which was having a new music show, he threatened to throw both me and the radio out the window together. "Only music by dead guys is allowed in this shop," he advised me afterwards. "You can play Frank Zappa. He's dead. But none of that pretentious crap."

Fortunately, the radio was playing something he liked. At least that meant we would only complain when the music wasn't playing. It was a Mozart sonata for flute and harpsichord. "Turn that up," he told me, "I think that's-- yeah, it sounds like Timothy Gibbins on the harpsichord. I used to listen to him when I was growing up. He was one of the reasons I survived out in this forgotten wasteland. You know, you look around you and everything's shit, and you wonder what the point of anything is, and then you hear music like that and you know there's beauty in the world."

Augustus usually had so much energy you couldn't tell too well how old he was. But now his age was showing. His bones showed inside his hulking, stooping body as he settled into his chair with a creak and cocked an ear to the radio. After listening to a few more phrases, he started talking again.

"The first time I heard Gibbins play, I just had to stop everything, put it all down and just listen. There's no higher honor than that. Just listen with all of your being." I strained to hear what he was hearing. We had somewhat similar musical tastes, but nothing could excite me that way. I did hear a little of the magic he was describing. It was enough to make me know how truly pure the music was, and to guess at how it must have made him feel.

"Did you know Gibbins played one of my harpsichords on the radio once? What an honor. I got him to sign it, too. He liked it a lot. 'Course, he liked my wife better. Got a few drinks in him at the reception and it was all we could do to keep him off of her. The guy's a fuckin' lech! Oh well, Mozart was an asshole too... but just listen to that music! Pair of fucking geniuses, those two."

A few days later, Augustus gave DiNardo his estimate and he brought the muselar in.

"Show me what you have in mind for me," DiNardo said.

Augustus glided over to a similar virginal next to the large Flemish harpsichord. It was a rectangualar box about three feet long and one foot deep, like the muselar. The lid stood open, attached by a string to the case. The sides and lid were decorated with a block printed paper which looked something like water-stained silk.

This paper pattern is called Ash Grain. It was used on a large number of Flemish instruments. You see this band of varnished wood around the paper underneath the lid? They call that a faux gold finish. Nice, isn't it? Is that natural engouh for you?"

Leigh stood, head cocked to one side, looking at the instrument. He hobbled over and diddled on the keys distractedly. He frowned. He looked at the lid, which had an inscription painted on it in black in. "Usus Promptos Facit. What's that mean?"

"Practice Makes Perfect. I hope you're not going to tell me I can't put an inscription on your virginal. All the Flemish instruments have Latin inscriptions I've got a number of good ones that I use."

Leigh did not respond. He leaned close over the soundboard and looked at the intricate decorations, which consisted mostly of twisting vines, arabesques, birds, and flowers. He stared for a long time and then pointed at something. "What's that doing there?"

Augustus peered over to see what he was looking at and laughed. "Ha! You found my little smiley face! I like to spice up the decorations, a little bit, you know. Did you see the spiders?"

Leigh looked at Augustus for a long time with an undreadable expression. "I don't know. I don't know. It's cold. Look at this thing over here. It looks like marble! What are you doing with your decorations? A harpsichord isn't made of marble, it's made of wood! And what's this paper you're using? It looks like fake wood. Why not use the real wood? Can't you make it more natural? It should sound like-- it should look like the forest it grew in, it should ring with the voices of the birds and the wind in the trees."

"Like a big tall tree in the ear?" Augustus asked with mock reverence.

"Oh, you know that poem! That's one of my favorites. Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. The very first one. Beautiful, just beautiful. Then you should know what I mean. That's exactly what I mean."

Augustus chuckled. "Want to learn something about the muselars? A famous critic once said the bottom strings of a muselar should sound like grunting pigs!" Augustus demonstrated witn an obscene snort. "Look, if you want to hear pretty birdies you'll have to go to the forest. If you want music you'll appreciate what I'm doing for you."

One of Augustus' greatest traits, and one of his greatest flaws, was that he never cut any corners on an instrument. That means he would not change his methods for anyone. It had to be done right, and he was the only one who knew what that was.

"Listen. Let's talk about the sound for a minute," Augustus said. "Voicing the instrument is an important and critical part of making it sound good. If you don't go back and file each plectrum down with extreme skill and care, the keys don't make uniform sound, and the instrument will be too harsh. Now I know what I'm doing here. I'm serious about the pigs. When you hear it, you'll know what I mean, and you'll like it. As for the decoration, it's a package deal. Take it or leave it."

"You are making this very difficult for me, Mr. Dorn. I really feel strongly about how this instrument should look. I'm not sure if I agree with you about... this whole thing. Please consider sacrificing some of your principles for a greater good."

The only greater good that was going to make a difference here was Augustus' pocketbook. Business was always a struggle. He might make eighteen thousand dollars on a sale, but that might be the only major deal all year. Nevertheless, Augustus didn't like to compromise.

Instead of barking out something really offensive, Augustus merely grumbled a little. "I don't know what kind of greater good you're talking about. The only one I know is the tradition of harpsichords that you're walking all over. When I say it's got to be done this way, I'm not just playing games with you, I mean it. And my advice to you is to listen and take what you're getting. I promise, you'll thank me."

"Thank you," said Leigh, exhausted, "for your gracious opinion. If you really care so much about your 'tradition' you may do me the favor of not putting spiders or other ridiculous things on my instrument. And please consider natural wood over your fake wood paper. Do as you must, but above all, talk to me before you put some inane inscription on my instrument. This is art here, not television and not a child's game. It has to look and sound truly beautiful. Nothing trivial or silly. Thank you again for your help. I'll see you soon." He was out the door before Augustus had time to reply.

The virginal was Augustus' biggest done deal, and so took priority in the workshop. He set to work immediately putting the strings in. It was then that he discovered the soundboard was warped. Leigh had followed the instructions and sanded the "crown" into the soundboard, making it thicker in the middle than at the edges, but he had done too much. It had swollen and bowed upwards in the middle so that it was now touching the strings. Augustus screamed curses at his absent customer and his instrument. He reached in and grabbed a fistful of strings, pulling them out. He removed the rest of the strings in the same way.

"There's only one thing to do when this happens, he told me, taking a breath. "Watch this." He grimaced and punched his hand through the soundboard, taking hold of the jack rail. Then he puled. With a painful tearing crack, the soundboard ripped out of the case. Augustus tossed it into a corner where it clattered and came to rest. "Now,' he murmured with resignation and excitement, "it's time to make a new soundboard."

For the next few days, Augustus devoted himself to the task of turning a can of donkey shit into a harpsichord. The tension level in the shop went up a few degrees. Curses and small objects flew freely. Even the quiet times were charged, as any moment I could expect a sudden outburst. I spent as much time out of throwing range as possible.

One way of defusing the situation was to talk to Augustus about inscriptions. I borught out the Quotes Book. Augustus got most of his Latin phraess for inscriptions from this book -- the only one in the shop that wasn't about music or instruments. It was called Amo, Amas, Amat and More... How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others. It had an introduction by William F. Buckley. Augustus loved that book. He would repeat quotes from it at every opportunity. "Did I show you this one?" he asked me after riffling through the book with a glue-splotched finger. "I think I'll put it on my next marbled harpsichord. 'Exegi monumentum aere perennius.' It means 'I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze!' Horace said it about one of his poems." I don't know if he read the author's comment that "Only the likes of a Horace should apply this sentence to their own work."

Augustus sometimes wanted to use inscriptions that were too outrageous to find in a book of real quotes. He would bug me to translate stuff into Latin for him, since I'd studied it in school years ago. Things like "Play that funky music white boy!" or, "Bend over, I'm a gypsy." He mentioned one of them to me now.

"That last one," he asked, "what did we come up with? Genuflecti Graeci Sum? Bend over, I'm a gypsy. That would be a good one for our Nature Boy. Whaddaya think? Should I put that on the lid?"

I didn't answer. We kept working. In a few days, the new soundboard was in place and decorations under way. Augustus illustrated the soundboard beautifully, adding a few spiders and one or two smiley faces and cherries being popped, but so gracefully concealed among the vines that it might take years to discover them if you weren't looking. The paper went on, but Augustus would not add the inscription until the instrument was all finished.

On the day Augustus finished the stringing, I walked into town to get some supplies for the shop. While I was out walking around, I saw Leigh coming out of a building carrying a sports bag. It was the local martial arts club. I called out to him.

"Oh, hello," he replied. "How's the work on the harpsichord going?" I was surprised he had recognized me. I'd never talked to him before.

"It's going pretty quickly. Not bad at all. I'm sorry about Augustus' behaviror, it's really inexcusable. Sometimes it amazes me that he's still in business with that attitude, but hey, who am I to criticize the boss?"

"Oh, geniuses are often temperamental. But I have great confidence in his skill," Leigh reassured me graciously. I noticed that funny awkwardness again, a feigned timidity. I wondered what he was hiding.

"What's in the bag? Do you do martial arts?" I asked.

"Why, yes - this is stuff for my jiu-jitsu class. I'm very proud to say I just got my first dan!" he gushed. A black belt. "It's been a long time coming but it was very rewarding. Say, you haven't seen a copy of that poem we were talking about the other day, have you? I keep a copy of it around -- a very dear friend made it for me. I thought I had it in my portfolio but I can't seem to find it. I was wondering if I left it in your shop... I'd hate to lose it."

I hesitated. I wasn't sure if he'd appreciate the comments Augustus had written on it-- along with the illustrations that he had added later.

"Um, no, I don't think I've seen anything like that," I lied. "I... hope it turns up." I left before he could see me turn red.

When I arrived at the shop, Augustus was bellowing at the jacks. The poor little things didn't stand a chance against his rage... he had been filing down the pectra with a scalpel and hed cut his thumb, twice.

"Stupid cocksucker wouldn't even be able to tell the difference anyway! Look, I'm not going to bother with the voicing on this thing. I've had to file all these plectra down once, who cares if it sounds like shit. I'm wasting my effort on this loser."

I couldn't believe it. This wasn't just cutting corners, this was sabotage. Augustus had threatened horrible things before, but he never seemed to mean it. What bothered me this time was his tone - it was like he really wasn't going to revoice the muselar. Only someone completely ignorant of harpsichords would miss something as important as that.

When Augustus had quieted down a little bit, I walked over to the radio and turned it on. We worked for a while, letting the music set a regular, comfortable pace.

Just as I was starting to forget about Augustus' last outburst, an all-too-popular chamber piece came on, ruining his mood. "WHAT?" Augustus roared. "Taco Bell's canon again?" Turn that shit off!" I rushed to save the radio's life once again by heeding his command.

To make matters worse, there was a knock at the door. It was Leigh, smiling and blinking, come to check on his little muselar. "How's it going? I hear work is progressing rapidly!"

"Not fast enough," Augustus snapped. "Here. Look at this."

Leigh walked over and stared. "I see you used the paper." His smile lost some of its luster.

"I had to. It doesn't even matter what you think. It has to be done that way."

Leigh bent over the instrument, examinining every seam. He ran his finger along the bridge, along the casing. His smile faded away. He walked around the instrument, looked at Augustus, looked down again. Augustus shifted his weight. "You'll thank me. I promise. It's better than what you wanted," he growled. He seemed frustrated at his inability to gain even a little of Leigh's approval.

Leigh leaned in very close, his face almost touching the surface of the wood. He looked like he was about to cry and jerked himself out of it. Maybe it was just a nervous twitch. Finally, he stood up. With something more composed than his usual composure he said, "The soundboard looks odd. I mean, the drawings are odd, but there's something else. It looks different."

"That's because it is different, asshole!" Augustus snapped. "You think I was going to use your shit-work? Fuck, that thing was nothing but firewood!" Leigh stared back blankly. Augustus flung his arm outward. "There's your fucking soundboard!" He pointed over to the wreck which was still in the corner where he had thrown it.

Leigh turned his head in the direction of the old soundboard. He twitched again. He turned an injured look at Augustus but glanced away nervously. He walked over to the board, his back to us. The soundboard leaned against the wall with all the notices on it. Leigh's chest rose and fell in large but unsteady movements. He knelt down and stroked the wood where it was not broken. He touched the shattered edge, brushing it, catching a splinter and jerking his hand back in pain. He sighed and stood up again. He turned back to the two of us, looked out the window, looked at the wall.

He saw the poem. He snapped out of his mournful daze, took a step forwards and read all the comment Augustus had written, straining to make out Augustus' oddly incomprehensible hand. Then he crouched down again and held his own, old, broken soundboard.

Suddently, all the awkwardness was gone. In a second, Leigh was shouting and striding towards Augustus and the smashed soundboard was fling before him past my boss's ear. Leigh's voice was not made for shouting. Augustus' voice was harsh and unpleasant when he was angry, but it was practiced and I was used to it. This sound was something never meant to be heard. It was a weak squawk, and only had volume in uncontrolled bursts, was filled with awkwardness and pain and rage and other feelings that people who know how and when to express themselves verbally don't show to each other. Leigh used words that Augustus wouldn't think twice about in a good mood, but the way he used them you knew thay were the most vile things he knew how to say, and you felt the vileness. It was amost a relief to hear Augustus shouting back, covering up that raw exposed hurt with his full-tilt insensitive bellow.

In another second, the two men were nose to nose. The broken board finally collided with the wall at the far distant corner of the workshop with a crash equally painful to the one which had ended its short life. The shouting smashed at my ears and both men bristled for a fight. Augustus had picked up a large heavy file and was waving it in the air. Leigh moved very little but every muscle in his body was coiling tighter and tighter in preparation for a sudden strike. The men swayed and the floor felt like it was caving in, straining aginst the explosive energy in the room. Their threats escalated until they could grow no worse and talk, no matter how fierce, could only give way to action.

They both fell silent at once, each gasping and waiting to see what the other would do. Each man twitched, but neither made a move. With a whip-crack spin, Leigh whirled... towards the exit. He swept outwards, pounding at the floor with his furious feet, slamming the door with his clenching hands. Augustus stared after him, so full of loathing and frustration he couldn't move.

No more work was done that day. The next day, I came into the shop and Augustus was not there. I began by regular work in silence, then put on a tape. I worked all morning, went out to lunch, and came back again to an empty workshop. Then, about an hour later, Augustus strolled into the shop glowing with anger and amusement. He slapped a shiny new record onthe the counter and laughed out loud. "Look at this!" he shouted. Our boy's gone and bought himself a record contract!"

On the cover of the record was a very bad photograph of Leigh DiNardo, grinning stupidly and sitting efore a large unpainted harpsichord. The title of the record proclaimed that it contained "Harpsichord favorites by L. D. DiNardo!"

"Oh, I've got to hear this one! This is gonna be a treat!" Augustus crowed. "Look at that piece of lawn furnithure he's got there. That thing probably weighs a ton-- I bet it's really got a steel frame--probably doesn't make a sound either, or what little it does sounds like turkeys being strangled! Especially by this guy. Well, let's see, eh?"

Augustus plugged in the dusty turntable, blew it off, and put the record on it. "What's the first thing on it? Couperin. Let's all send off a silent apology to our dear departed Francois." He dropped the needle.

The instrument was average. It wasn't that bad. But those fingers could have made any instrument sound good. I stopped. I sat and listened. I saw Augustus sit down slowly, not daring to make a sound in his chair. He would not meet my eyes. He remained still. The music came out and filled the room, reaching towards us and upwards, branching out beyond the walls and the windows. It flowered and fanned us with its heady scent. No note fell out of place, every sound was part of a larger sound. The activity outside in the street ceased and the rats in the walls and the spiders on the ceiling stopped to listen. A harpsichord has no dynamic control, but we felt the music swell and fade inside the sounds that man made.

The piece ended and another began, delicately breaching the total silence that had fallen around the shop. It was a familiar Bach fugue, but so simply stated that I couldn't help but sense the life inherent in the music. Bach shone right through centuries, right through this guy at the keyboard. I felt like I was hearing the music for the first time. It started deceptively plain and grew more dense until we were lost in its complexity. But Leigh didn't get lost. He always kept control of the interweaving lines, even as they came together in a blur of polyphony rushing towards the climax. The Bach was followed by a piece I never had heard before, and then there was more, each with its own character, its own voice, but sung from the same mouth, drawn from the same strings with those ten fingers.

Augustus stayed completely motionless until Side A of the record finished, then he got up, turned it over, and sat down again. The second side was as intoxicating as the first, and we were drawn deeper and deeper into Leigh's spell. We forgot whose hands were casting that spell, we forgot what we had been building, we forgot where we were and why we were there and who we were. When the needle reached the center and started going around and around, popping, we both sat in a blankness that had been filled only with the harpsichord favorites of Leigh DiNardo. Augustus did not make a move. I didn't either.

We sat there for a long time before the feeling wore off. When the sound of the cars in the street and the people talking outside and the birds and the wind in the trees came back into our world and the air conditioning kicked in, I got up and put the record in its sleeve. I went back to my work very quietly, worked until I was completely absorbed. I worked while Augustus took the poem down, erased what he had written on it. I worked while he took every jack out one by one and carefully revoiced it. I worked until I heard the strings of Leigh's muselar sounding out the Couperin piece. I heard it again. Augustus took a few jacks out, filed them down. Put them back in. Played a little more. Already the muselar sounded sweeter. Augustus grunted and took several more jacks out. He filed them and replaced them and played again. I heard the faintest echo of Leigh's touch this time. I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't just heard the record. Augustus frowned and tried again. Tried to find the place in the music that Leigh had found. Tried as he played, tried as he voiced the instrument.

He was still playing the same phrase up and down the keyboard when it came dinner time and I quit for the day. When I fell asleep that night, it was with the music of DiNardo's fingers circling in my head. I woke up with a faint echo of it still lingering. When I came into the shop that morning Augustus was snoring in his chair, the instrument finished. There was a new inscription on the lid:

DUM VIXI TACUI
MORTUA DULCE CANO

It looked vaguely familiar, but I had to hear it from Augustus. I woke him up. "What's that mean?" I asked.

"It's something I saw written on a harpsichord in Saint Cecilia's Hall in Edinburgh. It used to be a traditional thing. It's about the wood, the boards that make it. It means 'When I was alive I was mute, but in death I sing.'"